On the Third Night - Syria, a Country where You Didn't Talk Politics - part IV (EPITDASI 23)
Photo: Commerce by Pony and Cart. A quiet morning scene leaving Damascus old city.
(Continued from part III, published on 21st April)
Location: Latakia, North-west Syria, November, 1984
I'd been taking some innocent and unremarkable street scenes when I somehow struck up conversation with, I think he said he was a student, aged around 21. The lad was intelligent and spoke excellent English. He was keen to talk and suggested we drink a coffee, and as I was a little weary from humping the heavy camera gear around, I happily sat down at a cafe terrace to talk.
I forget what we discussed – certainly not politics - when at one point he declared, for reasons I couldn't fathom: “I am not a muslim.”
I thought this was a rather unusual statement of 'non' identity, but to my everlasting regret, I failed to ask him what he considered himself “to be”. (I felt if he didn't want to say, I didn't want to pry too hard – but as a budding journalist, I shouldn't have allowed that to dominate my decision making.)
We continued our conversation – perfectly amicably mark you - which must have meandered around the subject of religion, because at one point I felt free to react to his comments on one important aspect of Islam, noting that, unlike Judaism and Christianity, muslims believe Mohammed to be the final prophet, meaning there is a kind of 'closure' on the revealed truth in Islam that is – as defined by their very scriptures – absent in the two earlier Abrahmic faiths.
Now religion can be easily become an emotive subject, and I wouldn't normally risk delving into such areas of discussion in a foreign land for fear of causing upset, but since this man had declared his 'non identity' some minutes earlier, and came over as a very rational, level- headed character, I didn't expect any negative reaction; but that is what I got.
“No,” he replied, “this is not a belief, this is a fact.”
I was puzzled. He said this without any rancour or emotion, and his English was excellent.
“But the Holy Quran itself says that Mohammed is God's final prophet. So this is a belief, not a fact,” I argued.
“It is not a belief: this is a fact,” he reaffirmed.
“Of course, it is a fact that the Quran states this, but it's a belief that muslims believe it,” I countered, hoping to clarify any misunderstanding.
“No, no. Mohammed is the final prophet. It is a fact,” he insisted.
Now this, may I remind you, is from someone who has declared himself to be “not a muslim”.
I confess, I was non-plussed. So, I asked for his understanding of the word 'fact'? I forget his definition exactly, but he said something about "verifiable" and was better than most native Brits or Americans could come up with on the spur of the moment.
So there was no doubting his English comprehension, and yet there was no doubting his interpretation that what most western minds would call a belief was, to this young, self-declared non-muslim, a fact.
He was, using an expression that has become commonplace since Donald Trump began dancing on the world stage, living in a parallel universe to my own.
We parted on friendly terms, but I have long pondered what it must be like for those involved in international treaty negotiations if they stumble into such imponderable black holes of mutual incomprehension with their opposite numbers.
He might, I suppose, have been an unusual kind of Mukhābarāt agent - a scenario I have only now, writing this, considered possible. Let's hope not, for it would spoil the memory.
Photo: Syria was and still is (as far as I'm aware) a professed secular society, but I must confess that I was shocked to see an advert like this, which must be tantamount to pornography and an affront to devout muslims. Was that the regime's intention? I don't know. Presumably advertising a film. Photographed in Aleppo.
This more or less wraps up the most notable moments of my fortnight in Syria. I caught the Palmyra Poops, the local version of Delhi Belly, after visiting the desert ruins and felt I would die: a doctor dispensed some antibiotics at what seemed a fair price. Coming into Homs from the north on a bus, three sixth-form girls struck up conversation with me – a pretty unusual experience in a muslim country I thought, although they declined an invitation to coffee, as secular Arab society presumably did not go that far.
And then I headed south to Damascus.
The Syrian capital was more cosmopolitan than other cities, and foreigners were far less of a novelty than in the provinces. Many there were members of UN forces on breaks from duty on the cease-fire line by the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, not far distant.
Heading south from Damascus en route to Jordan, I think I caught a bus to Deraa, the city where, 27 years later in 2011, the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad was sparked by the arrest and torture of a group of boys who had sprayed walls with anti-government grafitti. At the time, I knew Lawrence of Arabia had been involved in “an incident at Deraa” some 70 years earlier, but to this day I don't know what that was.
I think I hitched to the border, just a few miles further south, but was prevented from walking across by the Syrian guards. It was just as well: this no-mans land was no 300 metre stroll, but more like a day's march across barren desert. I was pushed onto some vehicle or other and dropped on the other side.
It was only after leaving Syria that I felt the weight of tension released, a tension, in fact, that I hadn't realised existed. For the first time in my life I had experienced, if only superficially, what it must have been like living in Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union.
Syria was a terror state. Jordan, then under King Hussein, was not exactly a liberal democracy on the Swedish model, but it was light years ahead of Syria in terms of governance and human rights. You could feel it immediately on leaving the jurisdiction.
Photo: Not in Deraa - this grafitti I found in Amman, capital of Jordan. In fact, it is a commercial advert for the "Happiness Parking" company, plus some fading words of support for the Eagles Football Club.
Yet I was glad to have experienced Syria, meet some of the people and felt their world. Sad to say, bizarre even, but in many ways it was more enjoyable than Egypt, a country for me ruined by 3,000 years of mass tourism. It was a land you could barely meet a native who didn't want to sell you something and when they finally realised you weren't buying, would become less than pleasant.
I can't remember meeting anyone actively unpleasant in Syria, save for the indolent, disdainful guards on the northern border station with Turkey.
Once in Jordan, I hitched south, not so much to save money, as to meet people, and was picked up within minutes by a native. It was a short ride; I was heading to the nearby city of Irbid, a little to the west, while my driver was continuing south.
Upon parting, he insisted on giving me the bus fare - perhaps the equivalent of $3-4 - to Irbid, despite my protestations.
A small sum, perhaps, but a telling example of Middle Eastern culture and generosity to a stranger and foreigner. Like that third night as a guest drinking tea in a town I haven't named, I haven't forgotten.
+ My thanks to AlHakam Shaar, a researcher with The Aleppo Project, for his assistance with translations and many other details for these episodes.
The Aleppo Project aims to document as much history as possible regarding the city's history after the devastating destruction is has suffered in the past decade as a result of massive aerial and artillery bombardment by the Syrian military loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. www.thealeppoproject.com